Van Gogh and Van Zandt: Art & Art   Leave a comment

The Personal and Lasting Nature of Art

March 1, 2017

I like art of all kinds. Music, films, graphic art, paintings (oils, watercolors, acrylics, etc), and I like to visit art museums. It’s not like I spend enormous amounts of time or money these days driving from one museum to the next. Rather it’s my long-held interest in exploring as I’ve traveled. Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to visit The Louvre and Jeu de Paume, MOMA, Chicago’s Art Institute, and many others. Sometimes the attraction to the art and artist is by chance, and sometimes by design. I recall standing in front of Rembrandt’s 1642 masterpiece The Night Watch (De Nachtwacht) at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum and feeling drawn into that scene from three and a half centuries ago, like I am standing among the burghers. But Amsterdam is also home to the Van Gogh Museum, and there are few things to leave as lasting an impression on a visitor as being immersed into the works of Van Gogh. The artist was born 164 years ago this month (March 30, 1853).

593px-van_gogh_self-portrait_with_straw_hat_1887-detroitAmsterdam’s original Van Gogh Museum building had a mezzanine, where you could walk the long, somewhat narrow pathway, with the art hanging on the wall, and a railing
 behind you overlooking the main gallery. The exhibit space enabled one to see an abbreviated progression of the artist’s works. Regardless of the brilliance of his art, hanging and viewing an original or reprint of any number of Van Gogh’s images may be a bit disconcerting. There were many self portraits, and a few years before he died he painted Self-Portrait with Straw Hat (1887). The intensity of the eyes speaks volumes of the intensity of the artist. In spite of, or because of his artistic intensity, Van Gogh died July 27, 1890, three days after shooting himself with a 7mm Lefaucheux revolver. He was 37. Obviously his brilliant art has survived and thrived for more than a century since his passing.

Music, as regular readers of my column know, has been a passion for most of my life. I sometimes write about musicians I’ve seen, or heard, or met, or all three. One of those musicians was a somewhat soft-spoken troubadour named Townes van Zandt. Before I even met Townes, I knew he was something special. His songwriting was soulful, introspective and speculative. I just happened to ‘discover’ his music while working first, at a college radio station, then a commercial station, and later promoting releases from RCA Records, the big label which happened to distribute the independent Poppy Records label, whose creative owner Kevin Eggers signed a relatively unknown guy named Townes to a recording contract and began releasing new albums. Did you follow that?

It’s best to hear the melody that accompanies the lyrics he wrote, but even without the music, the lyrics alone will provide a little insight into what I’m talking about. Townes’ songs would often quietly break through almost any objective listener’s wall of suspicion and become embedded in their psyche. “Kathleen”, from Our Mother The Mountain, reflects the epitome of a song you could get in your head and have difficulty removing:

“It’s plain to see, the sun won’t shine today
But I ain’t in the mood for sunshine anyway
Maybe I’ll go insane
I got to stop the pain
Or maybe I’ll go down to see Kathleen.”

Regardless of whom she represented for the singer (girlfriend, ex-girlfriend, lover, prostitute) Kathleen was therapy of one kind or another. Recorded in a slightly more energetic delivery is “Come Tomorrow” from Delta Momma Blues. Some fans and critics dislike the recorder and the small string accompaniment to “Come Tomorrow”. Those same critics probably don’t like the accompaniment to “Kathleen” either. These are superficial critiques. As always the underlying song is the central element.

“Well, it’s strange how many tortured mornings, Fell upon us with no warning, Lookin’ for a smile to beg and borrow, It’s over now, there is no returning, A thousand bridges sadly burning, And light the way I have to walk alone, Come tomorrow.”

Many of van Zandt’s other songs were also in the tortured soul subset.

Each songwriter works within the confines of their own inherent or self-imposed comfort zone. Perhaps all of his boundaries were defined within the confines of soulful lament, regardless of tempo. Nevertheless, Townes was able to reach people with his music. Other musicians knew the value of his writing, as when Emmylou Harris included “If I Needed You” on her Duets album (in this case singing along with Don Williams.) The first verse is quintessential Townes:

If I needed you would you come to me
Would you come to me for to ease my pain
If you needed me I would come to you
I would swim the seas for to ease your pain

Clearly his best known song is the story of “Pancho & Lefty”. Perhaps Townes was knowingly or subliminally channeling the story of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Or maybe this was just a wistful dream from his childhood in Texas. I loved Townes’ recording, but to be honest, I loved the version by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard even more. The song is wonderful, colorful, daring and sad. And that, unfortunately, could also describe his too short life. Townes died at age 52, January 1, 1997. A year after his death, writer Michael Hall wrote in Texas Monthly:

late-great-tvz-0001Townes never released an album on a major label. He was never a music business professional and was never much concerned with his career. He was never concerned with much of anything, in fact, but writing, touring, and hanging out with friends and family. He loved paradox—living it and spreading it. Born into comfort, he preferred the company of the poor and desperate and sometimes gambled away what money he had. He was a lighthearted prankster who wrote some of the saddest songs of the century.

I never met van Gogh, but I did meet van Zandt. These two artistic supernovae—creative minds, from two different times, and two different worlds—died a century apart. Yet art can transcend borders, languages, cultures, and time. We should not dwell on how they lived or how they died. Instead, focus on the fact that long after their passing, both continue to touch so many people with their passion, their art.

David Steffen

 

 

Note: In March 1970 Townes was passing through Milwaukee on a performance and promotion tour, arriving near his birthday (March 7). To help promote his new album and celebrate his 26th birthday I organized a dinner. Looking back on that evening I recognize that celebrating with Townes was more img-1serendipitous than a matter of brilliant planning. The dinner party, seen in this photograph included (l-r) Townes’ road manager Vin Scelsa, local radio host Bob Reitman, me, radio host John Houghton, Townes, radio programmer Steve Stevens, and RCA Records promotion manager John Hager.

© David Steffen 2017

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